Moving? 10 Tips To Help Your Child Adjust

"Dr. Laura....We're moving to Texas this summer. My 7 year old is furious, my 4 year old is clingy, and my toddler doesn't seem to understand what a move is. How can I make this easier on everyone?"

Moving is a big deal for families, even if you're just moving across town. You have to pack everything up, live in chaos, physically transport yourself and your family to your new place, and then figure out where everything is. You have to re-organize all your household systems. You have to figure out where to shop, how to get where you want to go, where the good playgrounds are. Everything you've taken for granted has to be re-invented. 

For children of all ages, this is even harder. They lose friends. They don't fall asleep easily or sleep well. They wake up in a new place. Big kids get angry and sad. Little kids get clingy and often regress. And it doesn't help that they usually have cranky parents, who are struggling to cope with so many additional tasks when their lives were already full, and who may be suffering from their own sense of loss.

How can you make a move easier for your family?

1. When you announce the move, 

...be prepared for your children to react with sadness or anger. You're probably excited about the move, or at least think it's a good idea, or you wouldn't have made this big decision. But your child didn't make the decision, can't imagine what it will mean for her life, and probably feels worried. 

Listen, acknowledge, and don't try to talk your child out of her feelings, even as you reassure her: "Yes, this does mean a new school for you....I know that's a big change, and I know you'll miss your school...The good news is that there's a great school just a few blocks away, with a terrific playground. It's so close that you can walk, so you won't have to take the bus any more."

If your child is too young to understand the concept of a move, try acting it out with stuffed animals. Emphasize that your child and everyone else in the family will be going together. Young children often worry that they'll be left behind.

2. Put on your own oxygen mask first.

Stop packing that box and go to bed. Getting enough sleep is the #1 rule for dealing with stress. You can't be patient with your child if you're exhausted. And you can expect that since moving is very stressful, your child WILL require more patience from you.

3. Help your child know what to expect.

Visit your new place, if you possibly can. Don't just go to the house. Take your kids to the playground and to see their new school, at least from the outside. Stop at the roadside stand to buy fresh fruit. Stop at the local library and get excited about all the fliers on the bulletin board about kids' classes and activities. Find the best pizza and bakery.

4. Make a moving book.

Take photos, print out captions, glue them to paper, get it laminated, three hole punch it, and put it in a notebook. Start with a photo of your family where you live now: "Once upon a time, the Greene family lived in an apartment in New Jersey...." Include photos of your family doing things the kids love to do in your neighborhood. 

Then talk about the move. The captions might be something like "Then Mommy got a job in Texas and we moved across the country a long way away." (Add a photo of a map with a line here.)

"Shannon and Michael were worried about saying goodbye to their friends, but we had a potluck and took pictures and got everyone's addresses. It will be fun to skype with everyone to stay in touch.....Even though we are sad to say goodbye, Shannon is excited about having her own room and Michael is excited about the playground being so close to our new place. All of our furniture and toys will travel in the moving van but our family will drive with our cat and of course our special blankies in our car..... A family always moves together."  

End the book with photos of the things you're looking forward to -- cinnamon rolls at the new bakery, the climbing structure at the new school, and of course any photos you have of the new place, inside and out, and your plans to paint Shannon's room yellow and hang a swing in the yard. Make sure to finish with a happy ending -- a photo of "Our Happy Family in our new place." Start reading the book to your children now and add new pages as you think of them, either to address something your child is sad about or to give them something additional they can be excited about.

5. Honor grief.

It's okay for kids to express their sadness about saying goodbye to everything they've known. In fact, it's healthy and will make their adjustment easier in their new place.

  • Be sure to visit with their friends to take photos, exchange addresses, and say goodbye. 
  • Go to your favorite spots in your town to say goodbye. Add the photos to your Moving book, along with your child's words about what he loves: "I love this playground because it has the best swings." 
  • Write goodbye and thank you letters.
  • Go around the table at dinner and share something you love that you will miss about your current life, and something you're looking forward to about your new life.
  • Once the house is empty, walk through it together saying goodbye to each room.

6. Give your child some control.

  • Let your child participate in any decisions that you can, such as what color to paint her room or where to put the furniture or toys. With older kids, give them a budget and let them do a little decorating in their room.
  • This may seem like the perfect time to get rid of some of that clutter, but forcing your child to give things away may just compound his sense of loss. Instead, offer the opportunity ("Here's a box to pack things you want to keep, and a bag for stuff to give away that you don't need any more...") and model your own process of making those decisions. But don't force it.
  • Be sure kids know that the toys you're putting in that box are going with them to the new place. Let them write their name on the box. Letting kids decorate boxes of their stuff keeps them busy while you're packing and reassures them that these boxes will be easy to find once you've moved.
  • Give kids each a small box to fill with their most special things, that they can decorate and take in the car with you.
  • If your children are old enough, let them plot the route with you and be the navigators. 

7. Keep your child's schedule the same, as much as possible.

The more predictability, the more quickly your child will adjust. And don't add more changes. This isn't the time, for instance, to transition him from the crib to the toddler bed.

8. Set up the kids' rooms first.

Everything for the kids' rooms should be colorfully marked. These boxes should go into the moving truck last and come off first. Then, shut the door to your child's room and start unpacking. The rest of the house may be in chaos and you may have to order take-out, but your child will have a calm, safe space surrounded by her familiar things, which goes a long way to helping her adjust and feel good about the move. It also gives her a safe place to play while you're setting up the rest of the house.

9. Plan some fun activities as soon as you arrive at your new place.

  • Go to the playground. 
  • Find the best pizza. 
  • Get your children each their own library cards and a bunch of books.  
  • Give your kids the boxes to make a rocket ship, a tunnel or a fort while you're busy unpacking.
  • If you can find a group for them to connect with other children, that's best of all.

10. Help your child stay in touch.

It's hard to stay in touch when we move. Our attention shifts. And it feels painful. Kids can't really do this for themselves, but it makes their transition easier, so it's worth it for you to help them. Set up skype calls. If kids don't know what to say to each other, let them play simple online games with each other, like checkers, that can help them still connect and engage. Send photos and write letters, and talk about their friends. Over time, as they connect to new people, you'll see that they don't focus as much on their old friends, but they'll cope better if that's a gradual process and they can control the pace.

Moves are often overwhelming--emotionally and physically--for everyone in the family. And asking children to leave behind the only life they've known is asking a lot of them. But children do recover and set down new roots in their new community. In a year or so, they'll have moved on emotionally. We can help them by honoring their loss, at the same time that we hold the vision of the wonderful new life that awaits them.

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids

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